Why Diets Don't Work

Trying to Lose Weight
Trying to Lose Weight. Glow Wellness/Glow/Getty Images

When you want to lose weight, is your first choice to run to the latest fad diet? Often a quick 5 to 10 pounds will come off, then your old eating habits return. If you stick with it to attain your weight goal, you may still find yourself back at the same weight or higher in a few months. Why don't diets work?

A Diet Is a Lifestyle, Not an Event

On many diets, you are not eating the way you will eat for the rest of your life.

You eat foods you may not like very much and don't find satisfying. If you are determined enough, you stick with it until you reach your goal. But you know this is "just for the diet" rather than finding healthier foods you enjoy in amounts that don't cause weight gain.

Diets Can Be Downers

The very word "diet" is depressing to many of us. We think of giving up foods that are comforting and enjoyable. We think of sitting a party with celery sticks while others are eating the crab puffs. We may even stop socializing because food is a big part of how we interact with friends and family. We feel deprived, alienated and alone, except for others who are dieting. Eventually we give up and enter back into the world of happy uncontrolled eating, carrying negative feelings toward healthier "diet foods."

The Dangerous Yo-Yo Diet Cycle

Studies are finding dangers in the yo-yo diet cycle of losing weight, gaining it back plus a little more, losing, and gaining again.

It is stressful on the body systems to have wide swings in body weight. We think each time that this time we won't gain it back, but the statistics show that most of us will.
Yo-Yo Dieting May Weaken Immune System

Control Issues

At first a diet can give you a sense of control. You are taking charge of your eating patterns.

You may see success as the scale drops. But soon you are fighting cravings for forbidden foods, as well as hunger pangs and a lack of energy from the lower calorie level. Eventually you rebel against the diet and start "cheating." If your cheats are small you can still be losing weight, although more slowly. But soon you may go into full rebellion and return to your old eating habits.

Diets Slow Your Metabolism

Your body reacts to fewer calories by slowing down your metabolism -- burning fewer calories each day just to maintain your body functions. If you don't add exercise along with the diet, you will lose lean muscle mass as well as fat and water weight. When you lose muscle, your metabolism is slowed even further and you would have to eat even fewer calories per day to continue to lose weight. It takes a conscious effort to increase exercise when on a diet.

If you don't exercise and then you fall off of the diet, the weight will come back on even faster, as your body is burning fewer calories per day. Even worse, the weight will come back on as fat rather than as the muscle you lost. Your body will look even less lean and healthy.

Solution: Get Active for an Hour a Day

Your first step to ​improve your health and appearance is to begin daily exercise.

Clients of bariatric surgery clinics are prescribed an hour of exercise a day before they can be candidates for surgery. Some of them lose weight so successfully from the exercise that they decide not to have the surgery after all. The exercise doesn't have to be intense -- pick activities you enjoy such as walking, biking, or swimming. Get your body moving most days of the week. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends a minimum daily requirement of 30 to 60 minutes a day of walking or other easy-to-moderate intensity exercise for weight management.

Solution: Make Simple Eating Changes

Find a 100-calorie change you can make for this week.

Perhaps it is drinking one less can of cola each day, or having non-fat milk in your coffee instead of cream. Substitute string cheese or an apple instead of a bag of potato chips. Make a 100-calorie change each week for the next six weeks and you will have made a significant change in your eating habits. Don't think in terms of depriving yourself of foods you love, but eliminate empty calories you don't really like and find substitutes that you can enjoy for the rest of your life.

By making these changes, you can tip your energy balance to building and maintaining lean muscle while burning and losing fat. This will probably be gradual rather than dramatic, but you will eventually notice clothes fitting looser, your waistline shrinking, and your energy level higher.

Rather than gaining a few pounds each year like most adults, you will be losing a little weight each year. Friends who haven't seen you in awhile will be impressed by the difference. Best of all, you will not have shocked your body with a deprivation diet, but instead, have been feeding it appropriate amounts of better food while giving it the exercise it needs for health.


Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E, Lew AM, Samuels B, Chatman J. "Medicare's Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer." Am Psychol. 2007 Apr;62(3):220-33.

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